C-suite career advice: Craig Hinkley, WhiteHat Security

C-suite career advice: Craig Hinkley, WhiteHat Security

Name: Craig Hinkley

Company: WhiteHat Security

Job Title: CEO

Location: San Jose, California

Craig Hinkley joined WhiteHat Security as CEO in early 2015, bringing more than 20 years of executive leadership in the technology sector to this role. Hinkley is driving a customer-centric focus throughout the company and has broadened WhiteHat's global brand and visibility beyond the application security space and security buyer to the world of the development organization and a DevSecOps approach to application development. Prior to joining WhiteHat Security, Craig served as vice president and general manager of the LogLogic business unit for TIBCO Software.


What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The most important thing is to be self-aware and self-critical. Not in a negative way, but in a way that's constructive and helps you and the people around you grow and evolve.

If anyone ever said to me that they were a perfect leader and didn't need to change their leadership style, then I would be hesitant to hire them because no one is perfect. And more importantly, what's good in terms of management one year and in one company isn't necessarily going to bring effective results in another time and place. Evolution is key.

The other important thing is to ditch the idea of a career ladder. Think more of it as a lattice and allow yourself to move laterally, diagonally and vertically. This will give you a chance to find your career along many different paths and to keep your options open for new and exciting opportunities.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I have worked for some larger corporations in the past and, while I haven't received bad advice per se, I've seen some pretty bad demonstrations of poor management. Things like: Own the room. Demand respect. You're the smartest person in the room. Let people know you're the boss. These are all the hallmarks of a non-democratic leader.  But I will say this. If you're open and honest yourself, you can learn just as much from a bad leader as a good one. Just don't turn into one!

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in the tech industry? It's important to set yourself apart from your colleagues - in a positive and constructive way. For example, I started working as a network engineer, but it was my technical knowledge and skills that helped establish my tech credibility. Plus, the fact that I was always ready to help and take the lead where appropriate with projects, key initiatives and critical support escalations.

Make sure you're technically good at what you do. If you're a programmer, make it your business to be the best programmer you can be and keep up to date with the latest training and industry accreditations. I became a Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) in 1996 and was one of the first 1,200-1,300 people in the world with that qualification. It was a lot of work to pass that exam and to build up that level of technical differentiation, but it set me apart and got me involved with some great programs and projects.

Did you always want to work in IT? Coming out of high school and looking at colleges, I actually wanted to study law. The reality was that my parents could not afford to put me through law school so my career counsellor recommended a new Bachelor of Information Technology course that was a combination of a Computer Science and Business degree, which came with a scholarship. Between the scholarship and playing semi-professional football, I put myself through college and ended up in the IT industry. What a great path that has turned out to be. 

What was your first job in IT? It was really a bunch of jobs done during the summer breaks while studying for my Bachelor's in Information Technology degree. I got a scholarship and worked for the companies that sponsored the course.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT?  It's got to be about the social side of the work. People think that it's a solitary experience. They think you sit at a keyboard and write code in isolation. But it's actually completely the opposite. My first job as a communications analyst, for example, required a huge amount of interaction with clients and customers. I'd go over to their offices, talk about their comms issues and help them fix any problems. Doing my job well relied on having a good set of interpersonal and communications skills and a strong client-service ethos.  

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? My top tip has to be ‘bury the man'. By which I mean, put your ego behind you. Sometimes that means leading from behind rather than in front. I have a lot of natural energy, which I think creates a force around it. If I come in with a strong attitude or opinion it gets amplified so I have to make sure that my energy doesn't give it undue weight and prominence - and that people can express, discuss and disagree.

I'd also say focus on the unknown business issues while the team focuses on the knowns. The CEO's team should be working on the business opportunities and driving forward with them. My job is to go and understand what we don't know - talking to customers, investors, peer groups and CEOs in similar industries. That lets me learn more about what could be lurking around the corner and understand what might be occurring off-radar.

Finally, build a strong team and a nurturing culture. Insist on the highest standards and enforce expected behaviors and cultural norms. Create success models that expose and celebrate examples of how success is achieved. Then continue to model your company that way so that it always gets done that way.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My ambitions and goals have evolved over the years as you'd expect. I wanted to be a CEO, and I achieved that. Today, I'm close to taking a company through a liquidity event. That's something I've wanted to do for some time, and it will be a huge milestone for me.

But after some of the successes in my career, my ambitions these days are more self-reflective. They're about becoming a better leader, finding new ways to build strong teams and seeking different approaches to inspire the people and companies I lead.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I have to be honest and say I have work to do in this part of my life. If I look back at my last four years, I'd say I could have spent more time with my wife and family. I now see that I need to spend more time on self-care so I can be a better leader, husband and father. That said, I hike every weekend with my wife; it's a great way to get off grid, get back to nature and get some quality time together.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I don't think I'd change anything. My path over the last 22 years has been rewarding and fulfilling. It's given me a wide variety of experiences that have allowed me to grow and develop into the person I am today. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I wouldn't look at it as an either/or question as both are very applicable. A degree is important in today's market, but coding boot camp is a great way to jump tangentially into the IT/tech market if you have a non-IT background. Personally, if I had a child that was coming out of high school today and was wondering which way to go, I'd advise them to pursue a Computer Science degree, and if possible, a Cybersecurity-centric degree.  

How important are specific certifications? Getting my Cisco Certified Internet Expert (or CCIE), back in 1996 was hugely important to me. It was a badge of honor, and it signified you really knew your networking stuff! It opened a lot of doors for me and it ultimately allowed me to move to the US from Australia. So it's no understatement to say that it changed my life. Today, a specific certification relevant to your field is an excellent way to validate your credentials, set you apart from the crowd and help you advance your career.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  Self-awareness has got to be up there at the top. By the time I meet candidates, they've gone through the screening process and validated their technical and functional capabilities in relation to the job on offer. So by that point, I'm looking at their fit within the company culture, their attitude and their behavioral patterns. Can they demonstrate, for example, that they can make a decision that will benefit the business, even if it goes against their own self interest? Can they make a sacrifice for the greater good?

Next up has to be adaptability. Can candidates evolve, and are they receptive to growth and change? Or do they shy away from it? If we stop evolving as people, we start to become somewhat irrelevant. If WhiteHat stopped moving forward, then we might as well give up. Because if we're not continuously evolving, then we're not moving with the industry.

What would put you off a candidate? Probably the characteristics that are opposite to self-awareness and adaptability.  People with too much ego. People that, when you say you've done something, have always done it better. Someone that's always looking to get one up on their mates. Companies don't need that. They need quiet confidence. That's much more positive and much more powerful.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? First of all, don't brag. Let accomplishments speak for themselves. Second, do your research into the company, and come to the interview with good questions that show you're engaged and truly interested in the opportunity. A good interview should be an intelligent conversation, with everyone trying to find out if they can work together and help the company evolve. 

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? At the senior level, you need a mix of both. For all C-Suite level leaders, business savvy skills are key and would probably outshine or rank technical skills.


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